Philosopher’s fist: A look at Bruce Lee’s art of the matter

YOU see the shadow first. Then he emerges, slight of build, in a dark-blue, full-sleeved tee-shirt. The night is ominously quiet.

He stops before a bed of shrubs, then takes out a coiled rope from a bag slung across his shoulder. Then he lifts one of the flower pots.
You can almost hear the collective gasp.
The tension had been building up and nerves were taut in the darkened movie hall. In the stillness of the night, invisible perils seemed to lurk everywhere. But this was unexpected.
Hidden behind the flower pot lay a snake, coiled in deadly trap.
A part of your mind wills him to go back. He had risked enough. What need for more?
Lee takes in the situation, left hand slips into bag, then he strikes, too fast even for the serpent.
If the mirror scene in Enter the Dragon is the movie’s unforgettable climax, Lee’s encounter with the snake is its pivotal moment. That moment of reckoning when intelligence is pitted against venom. Protagonist against humankind’s primordial deceiver. Choice between retreat and curiosity, the existential moment that precedes Lee’s literal — and figurative — descent into the underworld and successful return.
At its best, Enter the Dragon is a thriller with breathtaking fight scenes, that is, if you are a Bruce Lee fan; passably watchable, if you aren’t. But it is around these two moments in the film, the snake scene and the final mirror-room confrontation where Lee takes on the film’s bad guy, Han, that a hint of Lee the legend also unravels — specifically his combat philosophy of mind over situation, mind over illusion of situation. The spin-kicks or the one-inch precision punch that he perfected over the course of his brief career as a martial artist were the necessary tangible extensions of that worldview.
For those not familiar with the 1973 film, Lee — his character too goes by the name Lee — is a Shaolin martial arts expert hired by British intelligence to bust Han’s suspected drug and prostitution racket. Lee eventually kills Han in the villain’s hidden room of multiple mirrors in a bruising finale, his martial arts skills far superior than Han’s combined advantage of steel claws and familiar terrain.
Lee was dead by the time he came on screen in what would be his last completed film. Real dead, not screen dead, of brain edema, an unspectacular exit for someone who seemed spectacularly immune in his chiselled invulnerability, his body more like a work of art than blood, flesh and bone. He was not yet 33 when he died on July 20, a month before the film’s August 19 official release in the United States. He would have been 80 this November 27.
The real-life Lee’s death was indisputably un-Bruce Lee like. A crushingly prosaic death, apparently from a reaction to a painkiller. But by then he had done — and left behind — enough to intrigue generations of fans, one who lined up to watch his movies and others who years later would turn on their TV sets to catch those movies.
He intrigued another category of fans too — the one that dug into Lee’s worldview, his philosophy, captured in his written works, to find out what the man was like behind the legend. It appears that Lee the man was similar to Lee the idea. And relevant in his thoughts even today, 47 years after his death, and not merely for aspiring martial artists or long-bullied underdogs who would take away from his films, if not the balletic symmetry of his art, then certainly his air of supreme self-confidence.
A suggestion of Lee’s combat philosophy comes early in the film when he talks to his teacher just after he had vanquished a competitor.
Teacher: I see your talents have gone beyond the mere physical level. Your skills are now at the point of spiritual insight…. What are your thoughts when facing an opponent?
Lee: There is no opponent.
Teacher: And why is that?
Lee: Because the word “I” does not exist.
“I do not hit,” Lee goes on, holding up his fist. “It hits all by itself.”
What Lee effectively does here is rid action of all extraneous intention, lifting it to a form of preternatural purity where violence becomes sublime, like poetry distilled from all that is dross. The closest to perfection that anyone can come to “art for art’s sake” in combat sport. And Lee was obsessed with his art, which he saw as a fusion of soul and body, the intelligible and the sensible.
It was, for all intents and purposes, a dismantling of binaries, of alternate reversal of hierarchies — sport’s nearest equivalent of what deconstruction is to philosophy and literature.
But Lee did not merely deconstruct. What he also did was reconceive differences in the various forms of martial arts to arrive at his own flexible system that he called Jeet Kune Do — or the way of the intercepting fist.
Absorb what is useful, he would exhort.
But to reach that state one has to break down the mind’s barriers and its constructs. Lee dwells upon this in his writings — in Bruce Lee: Artist of Life — a posthumous collection of his private letters, notes, essays and poems.
“We can see through others only when we see through ourselves,” Lee wrote in an essay titled The Passionate State of Mind. “Lack of self-awareness renders us transparent; a soul that knows itself is opaque.”
It’s Lee’s form of self-education, essential to seeing through illusion and all opacity. “We know ourselves chiefly through hearsay,” he warns in another passage.
Let’s go back again to Lee’s conversation with his teacher at the film’s beginning. “The enemy has only images and illusions…,” the teacher tells Lee. “Destroy the image and you will break the enemy.”
The same words recur towards the end — in the form of Lee’s silent reminiscence inside the mirror room — before he begins smashing the mirrors inside Han’s exotic museum. Han’s multiple images fall away as the glass begins to shatter, reducing his advantage of ambush by delusion.
Mind over situation, mind over illusion of situation. Get the drift?
Lee wasn’t a man content with merely winning a fight. What he aimed for was a mystical consummation of the contest, his teasing, nimble toes floating within and out of reach as he wove a spell, insinuating himself into the minds of those around him.
It helped that he had a stare that seemed to penetrate to the bones but gave nothing away.
It was part of his aura that he cultivated along with his body. Lee was never built like your average action hero. His was no bulging brawn and rippling bicep. He was just 5’8” and weighed 64 kilos but looked intimidating nevertheless, a sort of lethal gravitas.
That gravitas had a lot to do with self-belief, which Lee had in plenty, nursed by his philosophy of not being limited by limitations and expanded by his eclectic approach of style as no-style.
“Be like water,” was his advice.
“Empty your mind, be formless, shapeless — like water…. Be water, my friend.”
At its basic, it was a call to adaptability, not only in sport — combat or otherwise — but in life, too, in a world riven by seemingly unbridgeable chasms and crystallized differences.
Water, Lee would say, could penetrate the hardest of substances. It could take any shape and was never hurt no matter how hard it was hit. How could a mere serpent compete with someone who brought such formless flexibility to the fray?
Or, even a man armed with steel talons in a room of illusions?
Yet, the irony is hard to miss. The enduring appeal of Lee’s real-life art today rests mainly on an illusion, the cinema screen.
For once, though, there is no conflict. Lee the screen artiste and Lee the martial artist are the same — in the balletic beauty of their art.
Ananda Kamal Sen

Can they turn around? Up to Jason and his Argonauts

Don’t bother, if you aren’t a West Indian at heart.

No, on second thoughts, why not? If democracy is good for the rest of the world, should be good for cricket too. Why deny the modern-day game what might yet be its Gettysburg moment?

This bloke, Jason, may have just given us reason to hope.

Jason?

Holder. Jason Holder.

Captain. West Indies. And for lovers of Test cricket — long awaiting a turnaround, even the promissory of a turnaround — possibly the right man at the right moment; the belittled underdog’s imposing answer to all types of bullies, on the field of legitimate play and beyond.

This is what Holder said, according to cricket website ESPNcricinfo: “This is a pivotal moment in history for sports, for the game of cricket and for the West Indies cricket team.”

Effortlessly, with minimum fuss, he had posited the West Indies, once invincible on the five-day pitch but now fallen into a prolonged, debilitating rut, back into the centre stage of attention.

Holder spoke as his team announced their decision to sport a “Black Lives Matter” logo on their shirt collars when they take on England in a three-Test series from July 8.

“We believe we have a duty to show solidarity and also to help raise awareness,” he said in a statement this past Sunday, June 28, 2020.

It’s taken a long time to come, this day. Interminably long. So distant from those heady eighties that fact might have passed off as fiction were it not for memory. But now it’s come, at least a hint of it. A whiff of something that might restore equipoise to a cricketing order long out of balance.

Mark the words Holder uses. Cricket. West Indies. Solidarity. Awareness. It meant King Richards’s countrymen had finally stirred, which is just as well.

If cricket is a metaphor of the immutable romanticism of the universe, the West Indies were once its debonair expression. Few other teams have wrought upon the field such moments of epiphany as the field has ever known.

If they won, it was a conclusion forgone; were they to lose, even in a land not their own, they would be waved and serenaded to their port of departure. As the Australians did to Frank Worrell’s team sixty summers ago.

But, hold it. Let’s not get carried away. Too many false dawns have since come and gone. Singular brilliance, squandered in collective mediocrity. Years of desultory play, of endless defeats and rare, occasional victory. So often that it became routine, unabashedly familiar, as if that was how it was intended to be.

Off the 40-odd series the West Indies have played since the last of the greats — Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh and Brian Lara — moved on, they have won barely a handful. Most of them against the lesser powers. Anything contrary was an aberration.

So, abandon all hope ye who still dig for the Windies? (Apologies, Dante Alighieri.)

But this time it seems different. It’s possible that Jason and his Argonauts might even pull it off. If not in the near future, then sometime not too far away. Like wounded warriors touched to their pride. As the Windies had done long back under a tall, lanky man who stooped a little and wore glasses.

The odds equally are they might fail, their words turn out to be empty babble, spoken in anger and in hope, but uttered in haste; because their artillery of execution is still far from the potent arsenal of the past. Yet, the gauntlet has been picked up, ringingly, on written, inerasable record, so they could be held accountable.

Who would have thought a murderous knee would have such effect? 

For those not too deep into cricket, Holder is a young man, just 28, robust and tall — 6 foot 7 inch tall — taller than the bespectacled Clive Lloyd. What he lacks in years, he makes up in maturity.

He talks about the thought that went into the decision to wear the logo, the history of West Indies cricket, about being the “guardians of the great game” for future generations, about how people judge by colour of skin and the need for equality.

It’s not always an offending knee, sometimes abuse comes in the form of sneaky dressing-room taunt. The type that Darren Sammy, Holder’s fellow West Indian, has spoken of. 

Sammy, nice guy he is, just called for an apology from his former Premier League teammates who made fun of his complexion, behind his back. Holder has chosen to take a public stand.

He has long been vocal about the virus of racism but on Sunday he went further. He linked that battle to Caribbean cricket and its long-awaited revival, inadvertently taking up the same challenge as Lloyd had nearly half a century ago after Australians Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee had wreaked mayhem.

The Windies had then crumpled to a 1-5 humiliation in that forgettable series of 1975-76 and Lloyd had returned a chastened but wiser man. If they hurled fire, he figured out fast, he would fight back with thunderbolt. So along came the likes of Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Colin Croft and Joel Garner. Malcolm Marshall, the silent assassin with the sidewinder run, would join the band soon.

But you need runs in the bank for the grenadiers to have a go. The runs came from Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes and Lloyd himself. And, of course, the undisputed “king”, Vivian Richards.

Holder, of course, does not have that firepower Lloyd had. Nor does his team come even close to those that came before Lloyd’s. Teams that had the late Frank Worrell and Clyde Walcott, the just-departed Everton Weekes. Rohan Kanhai. Garfield Sobers. All immortals of the game, who played like inhibition-less gods and made devotees of generations.

His is a team in the making; young and talented. Kraigg Brathwaite, Jermaine Blackwood, Shai Hope, Roston Chase, Shane Dowrich, Alzarri Joseph, Chemar Holder. Still a long way to go. But who knows? And they are angry and hurt.

To those not too familiar with cricket lore, Greenidge, they said, was more dangerous when he limped. Hitback has sundry forms.

A frame from the past holds. Not from cricket but from screen. And a different context. An image of a man who too had battled racism in the land where George Floyd died.

Bruce Lee, Enter the Dragon (1973). Lee, 5’8”, practising his spin-kicks in the privacy of his room when the door opens.

His leg stays poised in mid-air, paused in lethal precision at the sudden intrusion. His narrowed eyes take in the hulking intruder, a tall man with a scar on his face — the mark of his dead sister’s torment.

The leg stays where it was — foot pointed towards the opened door.

“You must attend the morning ritual in uniform,” says O’Hara, the man with the scar.

“Outside,” replies Bruce Lee. Syllables drawled out.

That one word defined what defiance meant for all the abused and bullied wannabe Davids of the world who became instant fans of the body-perfect icon with the deadly stare.

On Sunday, Holder articulated a different kind of defiance. “We did not take our decision lightly. We know what it is for people to make judgments because of the colour of our skin, so we know what it feels like, this goes beyond the boundary,” Holder said, according to ESPNcricinfo. “There must be equality and there must be unity.” Lincoln might have approved.

Would the West Indies turn around? That’s a question for the future. But the message has been sent.

Ananda Kamal Sen

Half a foot then, knee in neck now

Live and let live

SERIOUSLY, not a good decision to kneel.

Not because unseen viruses are floating around. Or the other type, the two-legged ones, might be prowling about thinking which limb to unleash. 

Just that it looks a little knee-jerk.

And, let’s be honest, this symbolic recycled stuff — solidarity, empathy, brotherhood, compassion, bond of humanity, We are with you, man’ — is starting to look a bit jaded.

If it’s to test if hardened human joints were still suitably flexible, fair enough. But to kneel down in public contrition?

As if kneeling down on visible daylight streets, video cameras on, would wipe off the mark of the offending knee.

As if in pillorying him, in parodying him, in making a caricature of him, lies absolution.

Poor Derek Chauvin, if only they realised that today’s knee in the neck had been predestined to cut off vital life breath. Predestined since Kunta Kinte’s white captors gave the African slave a dire choice — half a foot or his testicles.

That was sometime around the 1800s, in pre-Civil War America, and long before Jimmie Lee Jackson submitted his human body to police batons.

Kunta, caught trying to escape for the fourth time, had chosen to save his testicles from the slave catcher’s axe, thankfully, as it turned out. It left him with a lifelong limp but ensured that his powers of procreation remained unscathed. 

That was, as it turned out, good, solid thinking. What he was basically doing was investing in the future, when somebody would tell his story. Present discomfort, future returns. Not sterile, token acts like kneeling in public.

Defenders of public kneeling would say you are missing the point. This is a symbolic gesture of empathy, of protest. You kneel to stand up again.

But contrition is a private thing. And this public kneeling, however noble or sincere, is unlikely to solve anything. The impulse to stereotype would still be there. And brutal guys in uniform would still be looking to shove their monstrous knees down somebody’s neck. Just because they happen to be not white enough. Or, to take it beyond what happened in Minnesota that day, not follow the same God or the same dietary habits. Such things have gone on far too long and no symbolic act of public kinship is going to stop that.

Dylan got it partly right when he sang “The Times They Are A-Changin’”, but the change stopped somewhere midway. If people have to hunker down, it should be those in authority, in chambers of decision-making, to carry through with the change, through hard, unpalatable compliance if needed. Human rights are non-negotiable.

Coming back to Kunta, his decision that day would win for Alex Haley, his purported great-great-great-great grandson, a Pulitzer Prize for his novel Roots. And for those interested in the genealogy of race and violence, a priceless template for African-American history.

The knee that white police officer Chauvin pressed into African-American George Floyd’s neck last month does go a long way back.

It was evening that day in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a little after 8 on May 25, when Chauvin pulled a handcuffed Floyd out of a police car and onto the road, pressed his knee to the fallen man’s neck and held him there.

“Please, I can’t breathe…,” Floyd had gasped. But the knee stayed where it was.

The charge against the 46-year-old was he had bought cigarettes with a counterfeit note. By the time the knee came off Floyd’s neck nearly nine minutes later — 8 minutes 46 seconds to be exact — his pulse had gone.

Like Kunta’s half a foot.

It is somewhere between these two unrelated but intrinsically connected events — one unbearably recent and the other tolerably bygone — that the real import of Chauvin’s unrelenting knee lies: that the subterranean stream of racial antagonism still flows. A seething ripple waiting to burst forth at the slightest intimation.

May 25, 2020, was a confirmation of that: in those nine minutes of breath-denying hold was unleashed the repressed collective unconscious of race-driven brutality.

To be honest, Floyd was no saint. He had been charged with robbery earlier. But that’s beside the point. No human being deserves to be subjected to indignity so savage.

It was the same savagery, fed on some distorted notions of superiority, that had hurled itself on Uncle Tom’s lacerated skin in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

What goes into making fiction is what we have lived — as protagonist or even as perceiver, but stirred enough to have kneaded the appalling dough of experience into outraged expression.

They say Stowe’s novel helped hasten the Civil War but that is apocryphal. What is not apocryphal is slave-owner Simon Legree’s vicious whiplash on a manacled Tom.

The knee has merely replaced the fictional — but representative — whip; the rest has barely changed: indurated social animosities so strong that you deny air to a gasping, handcuffed man.

They had done something similar earlier too, one July day in 2014, in the New York City borough of Staten Island — death by deprivation of air. Not by monstrous knee but by mortal chokehold of remorseless arm.

Eric Garner, African-American, 43, father of six, grandfather of three, described by friends as sociable, had apparently resisted arrest on the charge of selling loose cigarettes.

Eleven times he is said to have repeated “I can’t breathe” as he lay face down on the sidewalk.

Breath? What impertinence! Weren’t they trying to choke him?

As they had sought to choke off a protest march for equal rights for blacks on a February day 55 years ago.

It would be Jimmie Lee Jackson’s last march. Beaten, clubbed and shot, the 26-year-old civil rights crusader died a few days later. 

But would they have knelt today had such antagonisms still lingered?

There’s a counterpoint to that — the public demeanour of mortified mien does serve a purpose: history of the wrong kind is a difficult burden to bear. 

Unfortunately, memory does not permit us to forget. We are permitted to live with it, permitted not to bring it up, but never forget. Because there would be moments — as the one in Minneapolis that May evening — that would serve as reminder, whether we like it or not. No symbolic kneeling would stop that. 

Not a good decision. Seriously.

Soldiers of hunger, then and today

“Distanced by a virus”

Did he say it?

Or have the words been put into a famous mouth for assured longevity?

For argument’s sake, let’s assume Napoleon Bonaparte did say it. That an army marches on its belly. Or something to that effect.

He would have known, this man who gave us Austerlitz. Military strategist. Commander. Audacious Capablanca of campaign chessboards. He of astonishing ability who conjured up victories from imminent defeat.

But why bring him up now?

One immediate reason is Bonaparte died last month (on May 5) 199 years ago; why grudge him a token anniversary mention? He was a fascinating character, even if a bit fractured. Revolution’s child who ended up proclaiming himself emperor.

But that’s part of the reason. It’s his purported utterance that has come back to define a burgeoning predicament of the present.

Huge invading armies no longer march these days as they once did — they have been replaced by migrant armies of survival economics. Therein lies the twist: there is little economics now for them to survive.

Hunger has hit them hard. Like it did Bonaparte’s army years ago on the foodless Russian landscape of 1812.

The Grande Armee had returned home, a starving, bedraggled 20,000-odd from the four lakh that had set off in that summer of profligate promise. What hunger can do.

Raw, physical, gnawing hunger that eats at your entrails like a corrosive secretion. Something very similar has been playing out on today’s contagion-hit landscape. Why else would anyone attempt to pedal a thousand kilometres home, or walk under a sapping sun, and then drop dead? Exhaustion can be deadly on an empty stomach. What hunger can do.

It’s been happening, to the sturdy and the not-so sturdy; to the young, and the not-so young, disabled on kindred shoulders, all impelled on to pitiless streets towards, if not death, then debilitation. All anonymous collaterals of sudden workless containment that has imperilled lives and wiped out already precarious livelihoods across the world in a continuing nightmare.

Seldom have differences in time and backdrop had such similarity in consequence.

An authoritarian 19th century military general marshalling his army to hunger. Foot soldiers of modern-day economy propelled on their own, unprepared towards deprivation.

Bonaparte had been “contained” because of his ambition: the catalytic role he had played, in the gamble of history’s forces.

Two hundred years on, people have been “contained” within a framework of despair: an unspeakable biopolitic of “contamination”.

Somewhere, a mother threw her five children, one by one, into a river. Feeding them was becoming a strain.

A report, early this month, said people were queuing up at Trafalgar Square every day. For food. In normal times, the  central London landmark — built to commemorate Britain’s 1805 naval victory in the Napoleonic wars — teems with tourists. What hunger can do.

India’s government has since introduced special trains for migrant workers, stepping in to lessen their suffering. But thousands had already hit the road by then.

That damned, wretched belly is such a nuisance. To unaccustomed eyes. To genteel eyes long used to looking away. Won’t even let people forget.

Bonaparte would have gone through it, the incalculable folly of it all, as he trudged back to France that desolate winter.

It was the beginning of his personal lockdown — still nearly three years away on the island of Saint Helena — but heading towards him inexorably, like a shadow rising to meet him.

Some called him vain, a genius gone mad. But in his heyday, most deferred to his genius. To his adherents he was the son of the Revolution.

Bonaparte was perhaps all that — and more. How else does one explain his pre-Waterloo return from exile?

But the emperor’s time was up — like all emperor’s before him and those who came later; assorted czars, generalissimos, Kaisers and Fuhrer, whose time would be up too one day.

Still, Bonaparte’s passing was excruciatingly disappointing: like a promise that had conned itself. Another general trapped in his labyrinth.

There’s something intrinsically human about the number 99, whether it’s report cards or anniversaries. The moment they turn a century the date overtakes the man. Wow! 100 years. 200 years. 400 years.

The No. 99 has a romance to it. On the cusp of landmark but not quite. Utterly human. Incredible possibilities but brilliantly flawed.

Like our hero, the Little Corporal from Corsica who once couldn’t bear the odious sight of thirty thousand Frenchmen “vomited on to our shores, drowning the throne of liberty in waves of blood”.

By December 1793, however, he had risen to the rank of brigadier general in the French army on a quirky wave, swept up in a favourable cocktail of post-Revolution politics and providence.

In another six years he would be elected First Consul, the undeclared head of an authoritarian centralised government. Just 30 he was.

By December 1804, he had crowned himself emperor, in the presence of the Pope. The child of the French Revolution had come a long way.

March 1811 completed the Revolution’s last rites — for the moment at least. A dynast was born: Bonaparte’s son, Napoleon II, the “King of Rome”. The emperor of the French was at his zenith.

In between he had bequeathed to the world — and to posterity — triumphs like Austerlitz, a ringing name in the annals of military history.

Along with victories came reform too, the 1804 Napoleonic Code, the first modern legal code to influence countries of continental Europe.

Then, one day in the summer of 1812, he declared war on Russia. “I have come once and for all to finish off these barbarians of the North,” he is said to have declared.

But the Russians pulled back — pulling with them the invader deep into the heart of their vast land, destroying their own villages, leaving nothing for the mighty French army to forage on.

Hunger did the rest.

Hunger that fed on hubris.

Fischer vs Carlsen: Imagined, but mercifully not fought

Good they never met in battle or for conquest.

Imagined yes, in moments of wishful fancy, but never actually fought, which is just as well. The heartbreak would have been too much to bear. 

Or is that the right way of looking at it? It’s sport after all. 

But think of what might have been had these confrontations happened. Bruce Lee versus Muhammad Ali, for instance.

Flat muscles of flexible steel versus fluid ripple of beautiful brawn.

Lithe pioneer of the intercepting fist versus big-boned artist of weave-and-punch that stung like hell.

Five-foot-eight-inch icon of long-bullied underdog versus 6ft-3-inch belated apotheosis of the historically downtrodden.

Someone would have had to lose in this duel of different body shapes, of genetic makeup, of centuries-old cultures, of civilisations, of contrapuntal forms, of whatever you call it, because there is no stalemate in physical combat.

Maybe that’s why they never got to have a go at each other. Some contests that could have happened but didn’t were perhaps never meant to happen.

Or, take for example, contests that didn’t happen because they couldn’t have, such as Bjorn Borg versus Roger Federer.

Hermit-like intensity versus passionate artistry.

Inscrutable topspin versus beguiling drop shot.

Taciturn ice man versus one who showed it was okay for men to cry. Even in public.

Borgmania versus Federer Express.

Defeat for either in this faceoff between two eras, possible only beyond the convenient chronology of clock time, would have been terrible. Tennis, too, brooks no stalemate. Maybe that’s why they were born 25 years apart. Fate takes care of its favourites.

Chess, of course, offers the scope and the theoretical possibility of endless draws. But when Magnus Carlsen, the reigning superstar of the game, spoke the other day he would have liked to play Bobby Fischer and Mikhail Tal among players from a different era, it’s unlikely he had draw on his mind.

“There are so many fantastic players, but then it would have been interesting to play Bobby Fischer at his best,” Carlsen, in Calcutta this November for the 2019 Tata Steel Chess Tournament, told journalists.

Carlsen’s words that day brought back thoughts long forgotten, dredged up from adolescent fantasies of heroes and hero worship and of how such personal demigods would have fared in a clash with each other, possible or improbable.

Picture the scene. Carlsen, world champion, dapper and flamboyant, of square pugnacious mien, poker-faced master of positional play. A man possessed of a memory that itself is a mnemonic. 

The Norwegian leans back, hands crossed, then hunches forward again, a modern-day Alexander impatient to expand his empire; the board his willing Bucephalus.

Across the table is Fischer, sharp and angular, brooding eyes on the board, a troubled Prospero of the 64-square grid who would one day toss away his magic wand just as Shakespeare’s fictional sorcerer had done.

 If ever a man lifted chess to sublimity it was this American-born eccentric genius who ended years of Soviet domination of the game in those fraught days of the Cold War. The board was then a surrogate battlefield for nuclear warheads, the grandmasters its cerebral weapons of hubris and humiliation. 

Three years later, in 1975, Fisher would turn his back on his world title to become a recluse at 33, a brilliant but paranoid mind tormented by fear of lurking assassins and booby traps.

Who would have won? Fischer or Carlsen?

Immaterial. Victory is bauble when play itself is a metaphor of possibilities. We all play chess with time, as Bergman’s Antonius Block does in The Seventh Seal, the game merely a search for meaning in a world of contradictions, its gambits, declined or taken, the crossroads of life.

In Moscow last week, Carlsen, reigning champion in classical chess, prevailed again at the crossroads, reclaiming his world rapid crown and defending his blitz title to grab the treble. If anyone among the game’s current stalwarts can lay claim to a timeless dare at Fischer, it is this young man with Hollywood looks. 

It’s also possible that a Fischer-Carlsen match, were the past and the future ever to telescope into a perpetual present, might have turned out to be a scratchy anti-climax, far from the portents of dramatic supremacy or catastrophe. Sometimes, mystery sustains where reality might have gutted.

Carlsen, 29, also mentioned another master from the past when he spoke that day. “I would have loved to play Mikhail Tal when he was at his best. He won the World Championship, beating everybody with his swashbuckling attacks, and I would have loved to see if I could counter his attacks.”

It’s a riveting thought. Carlsen, dubbed the “Mozart of Chess”, versus Tal, the chain-smoking “Magician from Riga”.

For those not deep into chess, the wizardry lay in the incredible sacrifices the Latvia-born Tal would conjure up. He would then reap the harvest of the confusion he had sown, a blithe puppeteer of perplexity as his chagrinned opponents fell apart.

“…He is always on the lookout for some spectacular sacrifice, that one shot, that dramatic breakthrough to give him the win,” Fischer would say of Tal’s play.

Tal himself would come up with an explanation as enigmatic as his game. “There are two kinds of sacrifices; correct ones and mine,” he once said.

In 1960, at age 23, Tal wrested the crown from Russian grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik, making him the then youngest world champion, a record later broken by Garry Kasparov.

Along the way, since bequeathed for posterity, came Game 6, one among the many that epitomised his disconcerting dare.

Tal, widely reckoned as one of the finest attacking players chess had seen, gave up his knight for seemingly nothing, before going on to win the game. Seldom had intuition found such breathtaking articulation.

Would he have prevailed over Carlsen with his apparently clairvoyant sacrifices that some of his rivals have disdained as tricks?

Such questions are best left to fancy. Carlsen was merely expressing a wish when he spoke that November day, on the way to winning the Tata Steel tournament.

Perhaps, more a tribute than wish.

Ananda Kamal Sen

Vishy: A ‘cut’ above the rest

What the hell is he up to?
Seems he’s calling him back.
He’s lost it.
Then they would have buried their face in their hands.
What the crowd wouldn’t have known back then — maybe not even now — was that the real import of the moment lay in the future, in the irretrievable essence of something gone.
But we’ll come to that in a while. More pressing emotions were at play out there in the middle at the Wankhede that day; Robert William Taylor’s obvious annoyance, for instance.
Bob Taylor was angry. England were on their knees, their top order blown away; and now the umpire had got into the act. It galled him the most that there was nothing much he could do about it.
It was 1980 and the umpire’s human finger was still the infallible warrant for exit; decision reviews were unheard of in those days of black-and-white television.
As the crowd looked on, a man in a floppy hat walked up to Taylor.
Did you nick that, he appeared to ask the England wicketkeeper.
No, replied Taylor.
Gundappa Ranganath Viswanath nodded, then walked up to the umpire.
We are withdrawing our appeal, he said.
And so it came to pass that Taylor, doughty Englishman from Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, hung on at one end as Ian Botham wrenched the one-off Jubilee Test Match away from India.
Generosity had seldom backfired so spectacularly.
England, five down at 58 and then let off over a hundred runs short of India’s total of 242, made 296, a 54-run first innings lead handy enough for an easy 10-wicket win.
Reprieve comes in many forms, sometimes as a game-changing second chance that redeems the reprieved and the repriever from the purported clockwork of providence. It takes something special to halt the clock.
“For me the spirit of the game is more important than winning or losing a Test,” Viswanath would tell journalists many years later, long after he had exited the ring of fond devotion. “Obviously, as captain, you play hard to win. But there are times when it’s your inner call that tells you what is right.”
Those who remember Viswanath’s gesture that February day would say it was as natural to him as his game. Here was a man who played by his conscience. Were he to nick one, he would walk on his own. Were he to be undone by an error of judgement, he would walk still, a gentleman exemplar of sportsmanship. Not for him ungainly dissent; the sullen precursor of modern-day referrals, cricket’s version of instant karma or absolution. Play was a slice of life, it all evened out in the end.
But why write about somebody largely forgotten these days?
The idea came from a much younger friend, or rather the casual disdain the young often look at with at a generation gone. “I don’t rate Viswanath very high,” the friend had said the other day as a discussion on the just-concluded World Cup 2019 turned inevitably to the game’s past masters. “He was inconsistent.”
Sport, exacting chronicler of genius and mediocrity, has its own gold standard. Greatness isn’t guaranteed even to the finest.
But the friend was right in a way. A batting average of 41.93 is hardly statistics of greatness. Anything in the early forties in cricket is a crowded corridor, like travel by the Tube. Nobody notices anyone.
But occasionally on the Tube, there are people who stand out. Viswanath did an unobtrusively diminutive maestro among a motley chorus.
It began one winter day many years ago, though few would recollect. For one, many of those who might have remembered have moved on. Time doesn’t wait upon the living.
Then, greater things had taken place that year. Man landed on Moon; Woodstock happened, and half a million in America marched against the Vietnam war.
Into this momentous calendar one day in 1969, a young man, barely twenty, walked out bat in hand in Kanpur, the weight of a scoreless first innings heavy on his mind. By the time he was done, Viswanath had 137 runs to his name.
This November 20, it would be half a century since a young star had dazzled up on the collective consciousness of a nation.
More important than Viswanath’s debut hundred, India were out of the woods against Bill Lawry’s visiting Australians. That was a recurring statistic through the thirteen more hundreds he made, hardly a smorgasbord array of mind-boggling choice, but India never lost a Test match where Viswanath had scored a century.
Some of them were chef’s special — 124 against the West Indies at Chennai, Madras then, on a bouncy pitch (January 1979); 113 at Lord’s (August 1979); 114 against Dennis Lillee and Len Pascoe at Melbourne (February 1981); not to forget the 112 in the epic run chase a few years earlier in Trinidad (April 1976).
From star to idol was a short step, the adulation sealed in the transition from Viswanath to “Vishy”.
Another “Vishy”, master of the chessboard Viswanathan Anand, has since succeeded to the abbreviated mantle of adoration but, for the older generation, Vishy meant the man with the fabled wrists.
Old folks would remember how the bat had angled down that day long time ago, back foot bent in imperceptible courtesy. The square cut is to cricket what a moment is to a climax: a fraction before or after can be fatal.
Few have played the cut as Viswanath has done, cricket’s counter to what the arabesque brings to ballet. Those who have watched Viswanath bat would also remember another stroke he made his own — the square drive, knee and turf in fleeting touch as the ball bulleted away.
A ringing endorsement came from the other “Little Master”, Sunil Gavaskar, his friend, colleague, brother-in-law and partner-in-nomenclature. “I have seen situations when we all struggled, but Vishy would score off the good deliveries. The rest of us, we thought we could keep out the good balls and score off the bad ones. But Vishy, he had four-five strokes to the good balls that were bowled to him,” Gavaskar told the website ESPNcricinfo in 2007.
It’s a tribute that sits well on the unassuming little man from Karnataka, years after he has stepped out of white flannels and into virtual septuagenarian oblivion.
A riveting masterclass from his blade came in January 1975 against the West Indies. An unbeaten 97 in Chennai against an attack that included Andy Roberts.
Anyone who has faced the Antiguan in his prime in those helmetless days would tell you the line between risk and ruin was truly fine.

Wisden, cricket’s venerable Bible, ranked the innings the second finest non-century.
An intriguing thought springs to mind. Would three more runs have guaranteed similar commendation?
Irrelevant really. Records gather and tumble in the lengthening annals of sport, only a few stand out in their sheer magnitude. It’s the manner of play that remains in memory; a sliced drop shot, an insane dribble or a beguiling late cut.

It was Viswanath’s effortless cut that got a whole generation hooked. Boys, now well into tubby middle age, have grown up shadow-practising the square cut and the late cut in front of the privacy of bedroom mirrors. Some, including this writer, even thought they had become reasonably adept. Good the delusion ended early.
Yet, Viswanath could be maddeningly inconsistent. Often he has charmed to deceive, a strolled thirty terminated in the sudden clatter of stumps.
Example: G.R. Viswanath b Norbert Phillip 32 (Eden Gardens, 1978-79). Exasperation has sundry shapes.
Or, at Adelaide, 1981, bowled Pascoe 16, after three boundaries.
That was a fear that hung heavy on the minds of devotees of Vishwanath every time he went out to bat. The fear that it might be over too soon.
A wretched image harks back from the past. New Jersey, June 1988. Michael Spinks sprawled on the ground. It had taken Mike Tyson all of 91 seconds to knock Spinks out, enough time for a first-ball sendoff.
Only the truly devoted would have felt this kind of angst.
An involuntary prayer would form on the lips of his fans as Viswanath reached the crease. As the word Suzanne had formed, like an incantation, on the lips of Len Cohen many years ago.
Through riveted eyes you saw him take guard. Time paused. Time passed. Time unravelled. And then you thanked yourself for just being there, willing even to travel blind.

Fear had faded into the blur of an impeccable caress.

Gladiatorial combat versus Shakespearean drama

The moment had come and gone, inexorably as it turned out.

Those who were at The Oval that day many years ago would tell you they could have heard a pin drop. Minutes earlier a man with back-brushed hair under dark cap had jogged down the pavilion steps, his approaching 40 years light on his loose white flannels.

Now he was walking back, bat under his left arm, peeling his gloves off as he had done so many times before but agonisingly early this time.

“Silence, absolute silence…,” came the commentator’s voice as Don Bradman exited the beguiling stage.

It was August 1948. Bradman, less than a fortnight away from his 40th birthday, had just been bowled for a duck in what would be his final Test match innings, departed forever from the arena like an ache that precedes emptiness, so pre-eminently dominant he was.

Four more runs would have ensured a never-before average of 100 but providence had resolved to hold back just that much.

Thirty-nine years later, another of the game’s biggest centurions was on the brink of another hundred, grinding out a palpitating struggle towards victory, when a hush fell on the ground.

March 1987, Chinnaswamy Stadium, Bangalore. Sunil Gavaskar was on 96 — and India deep into rearguard retrieve against Imran Khan’s Pakistan — when the umpire’s finger went up on the Little Master and the collective expectancy of the nation.

You could have heard a pin drop then too as the import sank in; the series was no longer for the taking. And so it turned out to be.

There is something about memory and the present; they invariably knock hand in glove, like partners in reminiscence.

The two images from the past — one seen on YouTube over and over again, the other both heard and seen — kept coming back as the 2019 Cricket World Cup got under way last month.

The irony is hard to miss: the boundary that eluded The Don and Sunny is the unexceptional norm here; a strolled elegant single barely tolerable.

Sooner than later, you would expect, the pounding to begin; only occasionally, more rare than occasional, would guile get one to slip past the marauding blade. Then the barrage would begin again, as if the game’s genome had already been mapped and sequenced in fours and sixes. Like those that had cannoned off Chris Gayle’s explosive bat that Friday, May 31, the 2019 World Cup’s second match.

Three sixes and six fours had barrelled off the Jamaican’s blade that day. “If you want to get going, bring on Gayle,” someone lathered it on social media.

Were cricket ever to be held up as a metaphor, it must be as a counterpoint. If the modern limited-overs game is breathless affray, more akin to the gladiatorial combats of ancient Rome, the five-day act is a battle of attrition or redemption, much as in the high drama of Shakespeare and Sophocles where the end unravels as in life, not always apparent but possible nevertheless.

The game’s shorter version has a riveting pull to it, but it’s the lure of ceaseless action, not the subtle compatibility of the desultory and the dynamic.

It is in the turns, decisions taken or declined, not immediately discernible, where life’s caprice plays out. Or in the second chance that it offers sometimes but passed over often.

One name springs to mind; Steve Waugh at Eden Gardens 2001. Australia, at its seeming apogee of empire, India at its nadir, when Waugh, superstar captain of an all-conquering team, invited the hosts to follow on.

Enter V.V.S. Laxman, wristy and elegant, perhaps a shade laidback, but exquisitely perfect at the point of execution.

There was a tide in the affairs of the game and Laxman, as Brutus advises Cassius in Julius Caesar, had taken it at the flood. The rest, as they say, is history.

Who would have thought that when the Indian openers walked out to bat again that day, 270 runs adrift, Waugh’s invite would trigger a spectacular turnaround? It would halt Australia’s 16-match triumphant run and eventually their bid to conquer the final frontier.

Seldom has a back-to-the-wall fightback produced such a masterpiece of revival. If the previous Test — the first of the three-match series — was annihilation at Thermopylae, to lift an example from the boondocks of history, this has to be cricket’s Battle of Salamis.

Fate has its own way of reasserting itself. Like it did long back in the fabled realms of Thebes. Things might have turned out different had Oedipus, prophecy’s fugitive and decoder of the Sphinx’s riddle, spurned the kingdom on immediate offer and a queen much older.

A lasting legacy of the Eden match has been that teams now think twice before enforcing the follow-on.

It is not that the game’s one-day act is bereft of quirks of fortune. Mike Gatting’s reverse sweep in the 1987 Cup final against Allan Border’s Australia was much more than desertion of individual sangfroid. It cost his side the game’s ultimate chalice that had till then eluded England, cricket’s original homeland. That wait ended on a palpitating summer day in 2019.

Younger viewers would remember another instance: in 1999, when Herschelle Gibbs “dropped” Waugh and, in hindsight, maybe the cup too.

Retribution — or reward — is suddener in the 50-over version. It’s the five-day game that comes closest if play is a synonym for life. In the luxury it offers for rumination and leisured pursuit.

Or even in the choice not to press ahead.

Doff your hat, folks, to one man who did that. If ever a sabre sheathed in full flow won the battle for transcendence, it was Mark Taylor, the former Aussie captain, who declared when he was on 334 in deference to The Don.

Sixty-eight years earlier, in 1930, Bradman had made 334 at Leeds. It remained his personal best in Tests.

Test cricket — like life — does offer such scope to step aside, in between moments that come and go.

When the grail was (briefly) regained

Some things are hard to forget. A girl’s smiling eyes, for instance, and how they hinted at an indefinable sorrow. As if they had long seen death was near.

Or the synchronized ballet of a hundred and fifty thousand soldiers whose success hinged on the perfect concert of land, sky, sea and stealth.

Anne Frank’s fifteen-year-old fingers were still writing the story of her life in her diary, seemingly safe in her hiding place in an Amsterdam building, when Allied forces began their invasion of Normandy. 

History’s largest amphibious assault — timed to coincide with right weather conditions and lunar phases — would liberate Paris from its German occupiers and go on to change the course of the Second World War.

It was June 6, 1944. D-Day had started with air attacks and naval bombardments on the northern coast of France as part of Operation Overlord. The final count of men pressed into this mission would eventually cross two million, soldiers drawn from the United States, Britain, Canada, the Free French Forces and a host of other countries, war rations in their backpacks with cigarettes for respite.

The world had united against a rogue worldview of destructive revenge, exclusion by race and birth and strange notions of supremacy; toxic mix that can turn even love to bile.

Now, seventy-six years on, maybe it’s time to ponder if the men who hurled themselves against Erwin Rommel’s “Atlantic Wall” — a 2,400-mile fortification of bunkers and landmines — had succeeded in their pursuit of the elusive grail of freedom.

By early August, however, Anne Frank had lost her own freedom, yanked from her secret shelter by German police and locked up in a concentration camp along with other Jews like her. A few months later, possibly sometime in early 1945, she was dead. One more victim of the Holocaust. 

Her diary, written between 1942 and 1944, her own private thoughts on her life in hiding under German occupation of the Netherlands; words she would cover with her hands at the slightest hint of intrusion, lay behind to be salvaged later.

She would have been 91 today but little seems to have changed in the intervening years, at least in the way some of us see those different from us by accidental attributes of birth — whether in the destructive perversity of the knee or cricket dressing-room taunt.

Anne Frank had dug deep into her young heart but, faced with the pitiless indifference of the universe, had resigned to posterity her voice of liberty in suffering.

A few hundred miles away, “liberty” had already burst like a “bomb” on the land of Napoleon Bonaparte about a year and a half earlier — not on the field of war but on the willing complacence of subjugated Paris.  

Jean-Paul Sartre’s existential play, The Flies, an adaptation of an ancient Greek tragedy, premiered in the summer of 1943. The chain-smoking writer-philosopher had dodged past his Nazi censors to put on stage situations he said threw light on aspects of the human condition.

Sartre wove in themes like commitment, resistance, choice and freedom in the allegorical play where the flies, or the avenging Furies, torment Orestes, the central character, for his refusal to accept guilt and feel remorse.

Orestes had murdered his mother, Queen Clytemnestra, and the present king, Aegisthus, to avenge his father Agamemnon’s murder. Zeus, the controlling god of human destiny, demands that he repent but Orestes refuses, thus taking responsibility for his actions. He eventually leaves the city of Argos, the tormenting Furies after him, a kind of Pied Piper-like figure who makes a conscious choice, embraces his freedom to choose and takes upon himself the real or imagined sins of his people.

Few would have missed what Sartre was trying to convey in those fraught times when German and Vichy propaganda was urging the French to submit.

“It was impossible to mistake the play’s implications; the word Liberty, dropped from Orestes’s mouth, burst on us like a bomb,” feminist writer and intellectual Simone de Beauvoir had said of the play.

It was still more than a year to go before the tide would turn in the war. By August-end 1944, Paris had been liberated and the Germans driven from northwestern France, effectively wrapping up the Normandy invasion.

In the following year — in early May — Nazi Germany formally surrendered. Adolf Hitler had committed suicide a week earlier, on April 30. 

A few months later, in August, two devastating bombs would change the political and economic alignment of the world. Freedom would be in peril again. It is in this context that Anne Frank, the Normandy invasion and Sartre’s play need to be seen today.

So what links the three, apart from their proximity in time and a shared backdrop? A girl who dreamt of becoming a journalist but died young; soldiers, many barely out of their teens, who charged into machinegun fire as they breached the Atlantic Wall, and a public intellectual who insisted on a way of life he defined as authenticity. 

Each played their part in the struggle for freedom, like many before them and after, from the astronomer Galileo who chose personal humiliation to save science from the convenience of visible illusion, to the revolutionary Che Guevara who fought to free a land different from that of his birth and died in another.

History works in subliminal ways; countless acts recorded on time’s expanding canvas have gone unnoticed in the actors’ lifetime, overlooked perhaps for posthumous recognition.

The Diary of Anne Frank, an expression of the individual mind in adversity, is an example of that.

“Of all the multitudes who throughout history have spoken for human dignity in times of great suffering and loss, no voice is more compelling than that of Anne Frank,” John F. Kennedy had said of her in a 1961 speech.

Some, like the Invasion of Normandy, have drilled themselves into instant memory as turning points in history.

Others have been subtle, like Sartre’s play, in their push for choice and freedom, both collective and individual.

Years later, sometime in the sixties, President Charles de Gaulle must have recognised how important that was when he ordered Sartre’s release after the writer’s arrest for civil disobedience.

“You don’t arrest Voltaire,” the French President had reportedly said.

Surely, there’s a message in that too.

To Icarus the Unsung

Spare a thought for Icarus too.

Think of what he must have gone through — he was just a boy — his wings of wax melted, the sea rushing up from below as he hurtled down from the sky, bereft of the air’s buoyancy.

The fabled high-flier from Greek mythology had flown too close to the sun in a moment of foolhardy daring that an older man, his father, master craftsman Daedalus, had counselled against.

The future, with its retrospective wisdom, has been somewhat unkind to Icarus. Now, aeons after his impatient ascent became forever associated with excessive ambition and hubris, maybe, maybe, it’s time for a fresh assessment; more so when the world is about to celebrate next month one hundred years of another audacious flight.

Back then too, on June 14, 1919, two young men were getting impatient. The Great War was over, at least on paper; the guns had fallen silent in the sullen trenches of the Western Front and the time had come to test new limits. It was afternoon and ahead on the route lay the vast expanse of the Atlantic.

So impatient were John Alcock and Arthur Brown that while their competitors checked and rechecked their flights, the two — both former British military pilots — got into the cockpit and took off, for what would be the world’s first non-stop transatlantic flight.

Alcock, 26, and Brown, 32, were on their way. At stake was a place in history and a £10,000 prize on offer from the Daily Mail of London for the first to cross the Atlantic in an aeroplane. The condition was contestants had to take off from any point in the United States of America, Canada or Newfoundland and land in Great Britain or Ireland in 72 consecutive hours.

Human passion for flying had taken a long, big — and eventually triumphant — leap since the Wright Brothers, Americans Orville and Wilbur, tested their rudimentary machine a decade back.

It was a difficult takeoff for Alcock and Brown. The Vickers Vimy bumped on rough ground as it gathered speed before its wheels lifted and the modified World War I bomber lumbered into the air, barely clearing the treetops ahead.

Wikipedia gives an account of how tough it was. The wind-driven electrical generator failed; an exhaust pipe burst shortly afterwards; they had to fly blind through thick fog, and twice the aircraft nearly hit the sea.

Next morning, on June 15, they crash-landed in a bog in County Galway, Ireland, not far from their intended landing place, after about sixteen hours of flying time. Neither Alcock nor Brown was hurt. The two had flown 3,040km at an average speed of 185kmph.

“Yesterday I was in America, and I am the first man in Europe to say that,” Alcock had reportedly said after the flight. Forgivable exuberance after such triumph of human dare.

Many centuries ago a Carthaginian general called Hannibal Barca too had dared when he took his bellowing war elephants across the mountains in a failed bid to humble Rome. If it was the Alps in 218 BC, it was the Atlantic in June 1919.

In six months, Alcock was dead, killed in a flying accident in December that year.

In less than eight years, another young man, Charles Lindbergh, would overtake Alcock’s and Brown’s record when he flew — solo — from New York to Paris, covering the 33-and-a-half-hour, 5,800km flight in his single-engine monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis.

Time does not stop for moments of individual triumph or tragedy.

The Old Masters, as W.H. Auden would say in his poem Musee des Beaux Arts, understood it very well.

In Breughels Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away Quite leisurely from the disaster…” Auden would write in 1938 of the painting.

“…the sun shone/ As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green/ Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen/

Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,/
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Even the boy’s father had continued with his flight, his grief-burdened wings carrying him on to Sicily and to literary immortality as James Joyce’s fictional hero Stephen Dedalus.

The son remained in the pages of mythology a symbol of artistic revolt and self-destructive ambition.

Maybe, it’s time for a fresh look. Someone has to raise the bar of defiance for others to draw the line.